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The Milk Carton Kids: At Life's Crossroads, A Duo Looks Both Ways

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The Milk Carton Kids: At Life's Crossroads, A Duo Looks Both Ways

The Milk Carton Kids: At Life's Crossroads, A Duo Looks Both Ways

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan were doing just fine as solo performers, then one night, Kenneth was playing this song in a bar:


KENNETH PATTENGALE: (Singing) The food was as I like it, cold, wet, and in that wonderful tin can shape. I had it marked in a pawprint on the dog door the day that I finally planned my escape...

SIMON: And Joey walked in.

JOEY RYAN: I heard Kenneth perform a song that he'd written from the perspective of a dead dog only very recently having been hit by a truck. And it was that sort of uplifting material that drew us together.

SIMON: (Laughing) I was about to say, I don't think I've ever heard a song quite like that but...

RYAN: Well, neither had I. I mean, we struck up a friendship over that typical brand of levity that has become ours.


SIMON: And now they're a duo - the Milk Carton Kids. Their new album is "The Ash & Clay."


THE MILK CARTON KIDS: (Singing) Swing sets are empty, like dirt turned darker than night. Center of this town, it used to whirl in the glow of twilight.

SIMON: Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan have been compared to Simon and Garfunkel for their close harmony vocals and songs that are precise, softly uttered poems. And their banter - well, they sound a bit like a long-married couple.

PATTENGALE: We're not super bright. We have a very bright audience. In fact, the album title itself, "The Ash & Clay," we were on stage in New York. I think Joey was giving me the business about the punctuation that I put into song titles. And so I think just offhandedly I mentioned something about the ampersand being a symbol. And somebody very quickly raised their hand in the audience and corrected us that it was a ligature.

RYAN: Our audience is full of English professors.


THE MILK CARTON KIDS: (Singing) You look around you, one day what you once knew didn't stay. Let's come home before the girls all go. Let's come home tonight...

SIMON: Let me ask you about this title track. Is this a song about taking hold of the moment in life?

RYAN: Perhaps. I think there's a very particular moment - and this is Joey here, but I give all due credit to Kenneth for taking the lead on the writing of the title track here, "The Ash & Clay." We, you know, both of us sitting here, and you can't tell necessarily from the radio, have turned 30 recently. And I think for the first time, we're in a unique position of having as much to look back on and to miss, you know, to remember fondly and also to regret as we have to look forward to.

PATTENGALE: I like the way you put it, Scott - is it about capturing a moment? And I think the answer is yes. But I think the answer is yes if you also allow that the song is just as much about not trying to miss the moment.

SIMON: Let me ask about another song on this album, "Snake Eyes."


THE MILK CARTON KIDS: (Singing) Slow holy roller, it's just rock and roll. Hold your tears where they've hung all these years, down from the heavens above...

SIMON: I love the lyrics, particularly that line that goes "hold your tears where they've hung all these years, down from the heavens above."

RYAN: That's one of the more impressionistic songs lyrically that has come out of our collaboration. And it's sort of a meditation on nostalgia. You're looking back on something usually fondly, it implies, but at the same time it's a very sad notion to acknowledge that it's gone. So, I think the lyrics in that song circumspectly, I think, get at a meditation on that theme.


SIMON: Tell me about your guitars, if you could.

RYAN: I play a 1951 Gibson J45.

SIMON: This is Joey Ryan, yeah.

RYAN: This is Joey here. And I've got it tuned down a whole step. And it leaves off on the low end right where Kenneth's picks up on the high end. He plays a 1954 Martin O15.


THE MILK CARTON KIDS: (Singing) Seems to have forgotten me. If it has...

PATTENGALE: Well, and they have character and they have their own senses of humor. They've got their own, their real strong identity. You know, it's obviously not very active.

RYAN: Mine really messes with me, a lot. It plays on my insecurities.


SIMON: I want to ask this question delicately, but how did you meet your guitars? If it's none of my business, I apologize.

RYAN: Well, that is very forward of you. But mine is actually a really lovely story. A fan, back in the days when I had no business having any fans at all, decided somehow that she wanted to give me a guitar. And that's the only guitar that I have and it's the only guitar that I play.

PATTENGALE: I still don't know how you got through that one. Was your...

RYAN: Kenneth doesn't believe in altruism or good will.

PATTENGALE: No, I certainly do. I just don't know how your wife would ever allow you to give your personal address to somebody who clearly had sort of stalkerish tendencies.

RYAN: Well, I wasn't married at the time and I didn't give my personal address. I'm not stupid.

PATTENGALE: Oh, all right.

SIMON: Hi. We're over here.


SIMON: Just thought I...

RYAN: Just a second. We're almost done.


THE MILK CARTON KIDS: (Singing) In the air, that's the way they use to find their own way home. By the stars on their own, by the stars on their own...

SIMON: Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale are the Milk Carton Kids. Their new album, "The Ash & Clay," is out next week. But you can preview a few of their tracks right now at

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